Memo To: Karl Rove, President’s political counselor
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Saddam Did Not Gas the Kurds
I have not been bothering you much with these open memos, Karl, but I have to do so today, as I’ve spent the weekend watching both President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney saying over and over again that we have to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he has killed his own people with poison gas. President Bush cited last week’s New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg, which gives an account of the 1988 gassings based on 14-year-old hearsay. On three different Sunday talk shows, Cheney repeated the charge that Saddam killed as many as 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, in this manner. What I am telling you publicly, Karl, is that this DID NOT HAPPEN. The reason I am addressing this information to you is that you are the only member of President Bush’s inner circle whose total responsibility is his political success. That means you want him to be the best informed man in his own administration, for if he acts on misinformation, he can make enormous errors that will damage him with the electorate. So I tell you, Karl, that he is misinformed on this issue, as is the VP. There is no possibility that Saddam gassed his own people and no evidence that he did. None. Forget Iraq’s protests that he never did, as I would not base any conclusion on “not guilty” pleas from Saddam or his team. But all the evidence is that whatever bad stuff he has done as Iraq’s political leader, he has never presided over troops who dropped poison gas on his own Iraqi citizens.
There are other issues involving Saddam that clearly cause concern to our government, and to the governments just visited by Cheney, but this is the one that connects when we think of Saddam as being the embodiment of evil. Hey, I remember being tear gassed by the police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968, when I was a reporter for the National Observer. I could understand why the police gassed the anti-war demonstrators. I could never have understood if the police had used poison gas. There is no report in the history of the world of a political leader using poison gas against his own people in an open field for no reason. Adolf Hitler rounded Jews up and gassed them because he believed them to be subhuman. Saddam did not do anything like this and a little bit of effort on your part will persuade you, the President and the Vice President, that it did not happen. If it had, why does Saddam get along as well as he is these days with the Kurds? And can you imagine the Iraqi general who supposedly supervised the gassing of 100,000 Kurds defecting from Iraq and being spirited to England by the Kurds. Can you imagine Ariel Sharon helping Herman Goering make his way out of Germany to Argentina? And when the general gets there, he announces that he did not use poison gas on Iraqis. I’m afraid the President has been briefed with selective information, Karl.
You should first pitch out the New Yorker report by Jeffrey Goldberg, who offers no evidence, only quotes from various Kurds who seem to remember gas being used. My big problem with Goldberg is that he told me three years ago that he had served in the Israeli army, which made him a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. I read his long article and can tell you it is worthless as “evidence.” Even at the time, Turkey said it could not tell whether Kurds showing up on its side of the border had been gassed or were victims of malnutrition. Not that Goldberg is malicious, only that he had a serious bias going into the assignment and there is no evidence he made any attempt to test his own initial hypothesis. Having a dual citizenship with the U.S. and Israel might be okay in ordinary times, but when push comes to shove, you cannot serve two masters. Goldberg has thrown in with Richard Perle’s team, and as you can readily see in his article, he quotes Jim Woolsey, who is Perle’s agent. Even before the article hit the newsstands, Woolsey was on national tv telling audiences to rush out and buy the New Yorker to read it.
Go to Amazon.com, Karl, and look for the author Stephen Pelletiere. His book is entitled Iraq and the International Oil System: Why America Went to War in the Gulf, published in 2001 by Praeger. It is $70 and worth the money. Pelletiere is also the author of the 1990 report I have previously cited that exonerated Iraq from the gassing at Halabja. It is listed by Amazon but is "out of print." I believe it was the report Jim Baker cited with Tariq Aziz in their 1990 Geneva meeting, telling Aziz he did not believe the story of Iraq gassing the Kurds.
Pelletiere is retired at age 70 and living in central Pennsylvania. He is a Ph.D. in political science and was the chief of the CIA Iraq desk at Langley in the 1980s. He left the CIA in 1987 to become a lecturer at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and was sent in 1988 to investigate Halabja. He based his conclusions that the "several hundred Kurds" who died at Halabja must have been killed by Iranians, because the deaths were caused by cyanide gas, which Iraq had not used in the war against Iran (they used mustard gas), and which, says Pelletiere, they had no ability to produce. He says the Iranians blamed the deaths on the Iraqis and won the public-relations war that followed, even though journalists at Halabja could see the symptoms being caused by cyanide gas. In his new book, Pelletiere again addresses the question of the alleged gassing later in 1988, which Secretary of State George Shultz at the time said resulted in the deaths of 100,000 Kurds. Pelletiere argues that story was a complete fabrication, and that to this day no bodies were ever found. His account is consistent with the account of the Iraqi government, but as time goes on, the Shultz account still winds up being accepted by our press corps.... and our President.
I’ll return to this issue again and again, Karl, until the President and Vice President give some indication they have been correctly informed on it. Following is Dr. Pelletiere’s brief account of Halabja. I spoke to him last week by telephone and he told me: “You are on solid ground in saying Saddam did not gas his own people.”
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On March 16, 1988, at Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish city near Baghdad, the Iraqis and the Iranians both used gas. The Iranians, it seemed, had come to see the advantages of chemical warfare under circumstances advantageous to them - not mustard gas, the persistent agent that the Iraqis used, but non-persistent forms that disorient the enemy but then are quickly dissipated, allowing the human wave attacks to pour through.
At Halabja the action developed like this. The rebel Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, facilitated the introduction of Iranian forces into Halabja by night so that the Iraqi commander was unaware of the penetration. In the morning, the Iranians burst from hiding, overwhelmed the Iraqi garrison, and drove it from the city.
The Iraqi commander, in an attempt to regain possession, called in a chemical barrage (of mustard gas). This had the effect of disconcerting the Iranians, which allowed the Iraqis to regain possession. The Iranians now sprang their surprise, as they dumped a blood agent on the reoccupying Iraqis.
Mustard gas from the Iraqi side, cyanide-based gas from the Iranian side -- and the citizens of Halabja caught in the middle. Several hundred Kurdish civilians were killed during these successive attacks.
However, when the Iranians took back the city, they photographed the dead Kurds and subsequently publicized the deaths, making out that Iraqi gas had killed the civilians and denying that they had used gas as well.
Reporters let into the city to inspect the devastation noted, however, that most of the dead Kurds were blue in their extremities, implying that they had been killed by a blood agent, a chemical that Iraq did not use and, at this time, lacked the capacity to produce. This fact was noted in the press accounts and also by officials of several nongovernmental agencies called to inspect the scene.
Later, the U.S. government confirmed the fact that both sides had used gas and averred that, in all likelihood, Iranian gas killed the Kurds; however, this new information was not revealed until 1990, so the impression remained in the public mind that the Iraqis alone were responsible for the gassings.
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[Tomorrow: An Iraqi expatriate writes about Halabja from the U.K.].